Steve Sands, Performance Food Group
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Redesigning Supply Chains to Match Evolving Consumer Demands

By Steve Sands
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Steve Sands, Performance Food Group

Quality initiatives in the supply chain should address the growing expectations around transparency and authenticity.

Food is no longer a commodity. With an increase in special interest consumer groups, it’s taking on a more nuanced character. Consumers are increasingly seeking out specific attributes for their food. Whether the focus is on organic and natural, foods with superior eating quality, or simply a better price—consumers are more discerning than ever.

Their expectations around transparency and authenticity are growing as well.

According to Food Marketing Institute research, nearly 93% of consumers are more likely to be loyal to a brand when it commits to full transparency. Transparency and traceability go hand in hand. In a study conducted by SMS Research, traceability was at least somewhat important to 75% of participants and very important to 45%.* Animal welfare emerged as a contributing factor with 75% of consumers claiming they would be at least somewhat more likely to buy beef if they knew about the animal’s living conditions.

These are useful insights but challenging to make fully actionable in our commodity-focused infrastructure that’s simply not built for the nuance of our new reality. Successful companies will design a supply chain within the existing infrastructure and industry capabilities that meets customers’ unique needs and desired attributes.

Two major retailers are developing their own supply chains to control quality. Last year, Costco announced it is bringing chicken production in-house, largely driven by its rotisserie program, to ensure size specifications are met. In April, Walmart announced it is developing an end-to-end supply chain for Angus beef. Companies like Tyson are upgrading some of their supply chains with improved traceability systems using DNA technology. The use of this technology was pioneered in North America a decade ago in partnership with IdentiGEN, a global expert identifying and tracing food products with greater precision and accuracy.

Leveraging DNA Technology

DNA traceability was first developed nearly 20 years ago in Ireland by IdentiGEN to protect market access for Irish beef. The technology can serve as the backbone for a comprehensive set of origin, handling and processing practices that work together to guarantee quality. Beyond genetics, a company’s quality improvement program should consider standards for feeding, animal health, humane treatment, environmental impact and the processing of the animal. DNA technology can help uphold these standards throughout the supply chain, providing a cost-effective way of tracking product and establishing meaningful accountability.

Here’s how the technology works. At the slaughterhouse, a DNA sample is taken from the animal, and the ear tag is then scanned to create a digital link. With this information, the origin and handling of product throughout the supply chain is verifiable, even after disassembly and packing. From a safety standpoint, the technology can support recall mitigation efforts, allowing for swift and specific identification of the animals involved, helping protect consumers and limiting financial damages.

To create the most effective supply chain, companies should still supplement DNA testing with time-tested initiatives for quality improvement, such as customer feedback mechanisms and facility audits conducted both by internal groups as well as external partners and USDA-approved auditing companies. The data collected should not be siloed but rather correlated in some capacity to create a holistic view of all supply sources and the quality they deliver.

Building a Foundation for Success

There are many elements beyond technology that come together to make traceability and quality initiatives successful. One is a company’s big-picture, strategic view. It helps to look at these programs and systems as supporting an evolving process. Continuous improvement means creating and refining the right mix of methodologies, partners and technology—it’s about evaluating and eliminating anything that no longer adds value. Some companies have banned electric cattle prods, for example, because they cause stress on the animal that negatively impacts quality. As standards continue to strengthen and the supply chain is better organized, everything works together more cohesively, and it becomes easier to continue updating and adding new elements.

The foundation for any initiative of this type must be built on a shared vision, strategy and end goals, starting at the organizational level, and then with external partners. A supply chain should be organized for better production, but it also should be organized for mutual benefit, recognizing that everyone has different goals and interests. Structure your economic models so that every link in the supply chain is pulling in the same direction. Participating in the supply chain should mean doing at least a little bit better, however each partner defines it—enhanced financial performance, higher quality, lower shrinkage or improved safety and compliance. Farmers and packers will be willing to participate in the systems—and use tools like DNA technology—if they gain insights that help them achieve their goals, sell more product and improve their bottom line. It’s all about building a system that works for everyone involved.

Consumer demand for foods that offer greater choice and a wider variety of attributes will only continue to grow. Companies can successfully mature brands through a customized supply chain grounded in increased accountability and traceability. The potential to re-engineer supply chains and meet customer needs more effectively exists across many different product categories and attributes. It’s a valuable opportunity many companies may find well worth exploring.

* The survey was conducted by SMS Research on behalf of PFG among a sample of 2,001 general consumers in the U.S., weighted to census. This survey was live on March 28 – April 1st, 2019. All statistical tests were performed at a 5% risk level. PFG had no role in survey design, data collection, data analysis or data interpretation.

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Steve Sands, Performance Food Group

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